A crew member aboard a 26-foot boat prepares to come alongside Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley while underway in the Bering Sea. (Oct. 20, 2019) Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard District 17
A crew member aboard a 26-foot boat prepares to come alongside Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley while underway in the Bering Sea on Oct. 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard District 17

Commercial fishing was all but over anyhow when the Copper River District commercial salmon fishery closed at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, with the preliminary season harvest for Prince William Sound at 63.3 million salmon. 

Commercial fishing had all but ended earlier when processors stopped buying the catch. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Blue Sheet, which calculates the statewide preliminary commercial salmon harvest, showed a total central region salmon harvest of 107.6 million fish and the statewide total at nearly 224 million fish. 

Southeast Alaska harvesters delivered 65.4 million fish, including nearly 48 million pinks, 14.8 million chums, 1.6 million cohos, 857,000 sockeyes and 159,000 kings. 

In Alaska’s western region, the preliminary catch count of over 50 million salmon included nearly 42 million pinks, 6.2 million sockeyes, 2 million chums, 450,000 cohos and 19,000 Chinooks. 

The Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, hard hit by closure of commercial fishing on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, had a total commercial catch of 165,000 fish, including 141,000 chums in the Kotzebue area, plus 15,000 chum, 5,000 cohos and 4,000 pinks from the Norton Sound area. 

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No fishing was allowed on the Lower Yukon, due to low returns.   

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council late Monday issued a statement noting that the council has approved evaluating additional management actions to minimize bycatch of western Alaska origin chum salmon bycatch to the extent practicable in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, while achieving optimum yield in the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries. The council cited requirements of Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act Standards 9 and 1 as required for such actions. 

The council noted that while the pollock fishery intercepts chum salmon originating from the North Pacific and predominantly hatchery origin Russia and Asia chum that the council is focused on bycatch of western Alaska origin chum salmon.  

Declining returns of chum salmon to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers in recent years have heavily impacted predominantly Alaska Native communities along these rivers who have traditionally depended on subsistence fishing and hunting for food. 

“We remain deeply concerned that the urgent needs of salmon-dependent communities will not be adequately addressed through the options advanced by the council,” said Marissa Wisniewski, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council in Homer. “This management body has consistently demonstrated a commitment to protect the capital and continuity of businesses whose sustainability depends on an ‘uninterrupted flow of fish,’ with true costs borne by Alaska Native Peoples.” 

Some representatives of the commercial groundfish fisheries, including Brent Paine of United Catcher Boats, told the council they felt that performance standards were important and more effective than a hard cap on bycatch. 

“We have a performance standard,” Paine testified. “If we catch over the performance standard amount, the regulation will automatically lower the hard cap, we have triggers for vessels with poor performance … It’s creative thinking, outside the box. The tools we have right now, we have established triggers for closure zones. We need to stay out of areas with a high percentage of chum for western Alaska.” 

The council noted that the best available science indicates recent declines in chum salmon populations across many regions of the North Pacific, including Canada, Japan, Russia, Korea, and the U.S., appear to be driven by warmer water temperatures in both the marine and freshwater environments that impact juvenile survival, prey availability and quality, metabolism and growth rates, and reproductive rates. However, western Alaska chum salmon are taken as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock trawl fishery, reducing the number of salmon that return to Western and Interior Alaska rivers and subsistence fisheries. 

The next step, as required by federal law, will be an impact analysis to analyze potential environmental, social and cultural and economic impacts. The council said its decisions were based on recommendations from its Scientific and Statistical Committee and Advisory Panel, as well as testimony from more than 50 members of the public representing the groundfish fisheries, environmental entities and residents of Yukon and Kuskokwim river villages. 

The council analysis will consider four management measures to change the status quo: 

  • A bycatch cap on the total number of chum salmon taken in the pollock fishery. The potential caps range from 200,000 to 550,000 total chum, or about 35,400 to 97,350 coastal western Alaska chum salmon;  
  • Using annual run strength indicators from the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, and Norton Sound region to trigger various caps; 
  • An annual cap on Western Alaska origin chum salmon bycatch (ranging from 40,000 to 53,000 Western Alaska chum salmon);  
  • Additional regulatory requirements and management measures for the pollock fleet to avoid bycatch by closing areas in near real-time throughout the season in response to when chum are on the fishing grounds  

In the process multiple alternatives may be selected. The first review of the impact analysis is to come in mid-2024, with final action by December 2024. 

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